Tips for Engaging with People with Disabilities
Below are some quick references for interacting with individuals who have a disability.
- Not all disabilities are visible, such as ADHD, depression, or asthma.
- Many people have temporary disabilities which can be equally as limiting as permanent disabilities.
- Not everyone with a disability wishes to discuss it or its limitations. Wait until you know an individual before asking personal questions.
People First Language and Disability Etiquette Resources
- Disability Etiquette Tips by Ability360 Phoenix.
- Guidelines for non-handicapping language in APA Journals by the American Psychiatric Association
- Understand that learning disabilities may impact a person’s reading, writing, math, memory, and/or information processing.
- Realize that there is rarely visible evidence of learning disabilities.
- Use multiple methods to deliver information.
- Minimize environmental distractions (screen savers, background noises, etc.).
- Keep in mind that an unconventional response may be influenced by a processing difficulty.
- For additional information, check out the Inside Higher Ed webinar by Brent E. Betit, senior vice president of Landmark College and Manju Banerjee, director of the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training. Helping Students with Learning Disabilities Succeed (Webinar)
Speech & Language
- Allow time for the person to speak, as they may need more time to respond to you.
- Avoid the urge to interrupt or complete a sentence for the person.
- Ask for repetition if you do not understand what the person said.
- Do not fake understanding.
- Be aware that you may need to use a variety of communication methods such as writing notes, emailing, or technological options.
- Be patient and encourage the person toward expression.
The needs of students with psychological disabilities can vary widely and may change with the changing course of their disability. The most important way faculty can support these students is by being supportive and flexible.
- Be sensitive to emotional stress or triggers.
- Be patient.
- Understand that social skills may be impacted.
Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing
- Tap someone who is deaf on the shoulder or wave your hand to get his or her attention.
- Write notes if you don’t sign (short sentences; common words).
- Look directly at the person while speaking and don’t obscure your mouth.
- Try to limit gum chewing.
- Talk directly to the person, not the interpreter.
- Speak in a normal speed and tone unless asked to do otherwise.
- Avoid standing in front of a light source.
- Do not walk between two people using sign language as you will be cutting off their conversation.
- Try to be expressive in your body language, gestures and facial expressions.
Blindness & Visual Impairment
- Understand that legally blind people may have some vision.
- Provide very explicit and specific directions if asked. Avoid using such terms as "over there" or "turn this way".
- Never pet, feed or otherwise distract a service animal without first getting permission from the owner.
- Provide class information in accessible, electronic formats to support the individual in using their technology to speak content aloud.
- Feel free to use words like "see" and "look".
- Offer your arm/elbow when leading someone who is blind.
Chronic or Acute Health Problems
Examples: Cancer, Asthma, Emphysema, Diabetes, HIV/AIDS, Sickle Cell
- Understand that each person has unique set of symptoms and treatments.
- Accept that many health conditions are often invisible to others.
- Never define the person by the condition.
- Do not treat the person as if they are contagious.
Examples: Cerebral Palsy, Seizures, MS, Tourette, Muscular Dystrophy, TBI (traumatic brain injury)
- Know that some of these conditions will have symptoms that look like mobility issues, others may have similar effects as learning disabilities.
- Understand that someone may look like they have no disability.
- Be very clear and specific in your language. Sarcasm and subtle humor is often missed.
- Present instructions in a clear, easy to understand way.
- Offer cues to help with transitions like "we have 5 minutes left until our meeting is done".
- Reinforce information in multiple formats.
- Employ modeling, rehearsing, and role-playing to help students learn appropriate interactions.
- Position yourself at the same eye level by sitting down if engaged in a long conversation with someone who uses a chair.
- Treat the chair as part of the user’s personal space; do not touch or lean on the chair.
- Ask before giving assistance to a wheelchair user and take "No" for an answer.
- Feel free to use words like "run" or "walk". Wheelchair users use these words too.
- Be aware of architectural features which may cause difficulty for wheelchair users, such as steps or insufficiently wide doors.
- Remember that some parking spaces are reserved for people with mobility limitations, they are not a luxury, they are a necessity.
- Direct your comments to the individual, not their companion or care attendant.
- Never pet, feed or otherwise distract a service animal without first obtaining permission from the owner.